The Sayat Nova Dance Company women’s dance on the performance of Saturday, October 8th

Sayat Nova Dance Company Celebrates 35th Anniversary with Weekend of Events

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WATERTOWN — On the weekend of October 7-8, the Sayat Nova Armenian Dance Company of Boston (SNDC) celebrated its 35th anniversary by a performance on Saturday night and a gala banquet on Sunday. Both of these events were fueled by nostalgia and memories, as well as the excitement of performing again.

“One, two, three, and four,” Alina Palanjian loudly repeated on the stage of the Regis College Theatre in Weston during one of the last rehearsals for Saturday night’s show. Eyes on the ground during sad songs, a smile on the face when the music is joyful: the women’s instructor precisely led the steps. In a few hours, the curtain would be thrown wide open, so everyone needed to be ready.

Alina is the daughter of Apo Ashjian, the company’s director who founded it in 1986 and who has been active in Armenian dance for more than 40 years. SNDC is a family affair and it is not just Apo Ashjian’s daughter who is teaching, but so is his brother, Hagop, SNDC co-founder and current assistant director.  The two brothers founded the organization with Shaghig Palanjian, also an assistant director now. Shaghig is not just a colleague, but an in-law: Alina is married to Shaghig’s son, Sevag Palanjian.

The Sayat Nova Dance Company men’s dance on the performance of Saturday, October 8th

Before the creation of SNDC, Apo had directed other Armenian dance companies and that is how he met Shaghig and the two decided to launch their own group.  At that time, they wanted to dance for an independent and non-profit dance ensemble, not affiliated with any Armenian association.

Alina and Hagop have trained a group of 50 folk dancers for several years. Most of them started in the children’s dance school of the company, Abaka, which re-opened last year, after the Covid-19 shut down. Abaka graduates are allowed to dance in the troupe. Auditioning isn’t mandatory to be a member of the dance troupe, however dancers need to start in the beginner’s class.

The members of the SNDC have done several performances throughout the United States and even in Armenia. Because of COVID-19, they weren’t able to perform for 3 years. Therefore, while rehearsing,  they felt tired for sure, but most of all, they experienced excitement on the stage.

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This most recent show started the same way the troupe had started its first performance, 35 years ago. On Saturday, October 8, in order to make the audience feel the passage of the year and the ensuring nostalgia, they showed a recording of Joseph Ashjian, Apo and Hagop’s father, playing the music of Sayat Nova and explaining in Armenian the purpose of the company.

Araz, Hagop’s son, is set to become the new men’s instructor, thanks to his father’s assistance. Through the years, the company has never stopped teaching, dancing, and performing. The dancers went to Armenia several times to perform, often attended the Peabody International Festival and even performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade (November 2017).

Men and women of SNDC reunited on stage, on the performance of Saturday, October 8th

Tales from Armenia

The instructors hope to capture something greater than movement for the audience.

“It’s not just dancing, it’s telling a story,” Hagop Ashjian said. In their choreographies, each dance recreates a part of the Armenian history and major events.  Noted Hagop, “Apo mostly created all the choreographies. He has a genuine mind. He would go to Armenia once a year to meet his mentor, the ethnographer Artousha Karapetian. They would talk about dance and exchanged ideas.”

On Saturday night, however, the company brought to life some tragic and powerful images of the Artsakh war. While Kilikia was playing, the dance reenacted the plight of several widows and survivors on the stage. The dancers also moved to rhythmic and enthusiastic music, surrounded by videos of Armenian landscapes. The men were vigorously dancing at Arunod Trosh, a tribute to the heroism of Armenian freedom fighters, and the ground was almost grooving. The women then embodied love in a different tone with the love song Yaman Yar, full of elegance and proud moves. The teenage dancers from Abaka also performed gracefully to share the story of the song Hayi Achker. The hall in which they performed had 680 seats and was completely sold out.

According to Taline Sarian, who has been dancing for 18 years, this performance was a sort of reunion, not only with the dancers, but  with the manager, Garen Avetissyan, and the stage crew: “It was amazing to be able to be on stage after 3 years, we really missed it,” she said.

“It’s a very group effort; there are so many people involved in the company,” Adelaida Balagyozyan, another dancer, highlighted. The rehearsal atmosphere has always been special for Lara Varjabedian, who has been dancing for 6 years. “It’s nice because it’s not political, it’s just purely music and dance. You can feel it, everything is more about feeling,” she explained. Plus, she followed her mother steps, who used to dance for the company and became the beginners’ instructor.

Levon Brunson, a dancer of SNDC, giving his speech during the gala on Sunday, October 9th

Gala

This anniversary was also an opportunity to celebrate the company through a gala, at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel. About 280 SNDC alumni and their family and friends gathered for the gala. For each generation, an alumna or alumnus gave a speech. “My vivid memory of waiting on stage with Arlet [Ashjian, Apo’s wife], squeezing my hand, something I had to endure for years, and Hagop jumping up and down, supposedly warming up. There was a buzz like never felt before. Suddenly, someone peeked through the curtain and news came from the front lobby: this is a sold-out performance, there is not one empty seat,” Pearlene Varjabedian remembered. She danced as part of the very first performance and was one of the first dancers of the company.

Vahe Ohanessian shared his most emotional memory. He remembered the highlight of their Armenian tour during the 1990s, when a group of Armenian soldiers came to attend their show: “It was my first time in Armenia, and it was so emotional. I felt in love with the country,” he added.

Levon Brunson, a current dancer, pointed out the idea that dancing is a crucial key to the survival of Armenia. “We will dance Kilikia again in Artsakh,” he stressed.

The gala at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel, on Sunday, October 9th

They also took time to pay tribute to every member of SNDC and acclaimed the Ashjian family. Singer Gohar Hovannisyan and her band also performed at the gala. Besides that, the company raised funds by selling raffle tickets and Armenian dolls dressed in traditional Armenian dance costumes. While the figure raised was not released, the SNDC guaranteed that 100% of the proceeds from the doll sales will go to families who lost their homes and children in the war in Karabakh.

Liana Avetian (a dancer from the 2000s) said in her speech at the gala, “If I danced again, it would be in Sayat Nova. We can never leave, it’s always with us.”

The dance troupe hopes to return to Armenia in 2025.

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